February 5, 2017, is a day none of us really like to put that much thought into, particularly as the evening wore on. You know the script and have had nightmares about the outcome, so let’s move past that
Of all the malevolent memories swirling about in my head, one stands out, consistently, and that’s something that happened after the game, something involving former Falcons safety Ricardo Allen.
Allen, of course, was the feel-good story of Dan Quinn’s era with the Falcons. A fifth-round pick in 2014 in the Mike Smith regime, a 22-year-old Allen was publicly cut on Hard Knocks from Smitty’s last 53-man roster and spent the year on the practice squad (on top of a gnarly groin injury that was hard to forget).
Rather than wind up leaving the organization after the regime change, Allen wound up sticking when Quinn was hired, won the team’s starting free safety position and, in his first game in that role, nabbed a game-winning interception in the season opener against Philadelphia.
He took over as one of the core leaders in Quinn’s Brotherhood and became a fan favorite, inking an extension in 2018 for all of his hard-earned successes. It was hard not to cheer for a guy like that, someone who never seemed to take any play for granted.
It was Super Bowl night that Allen really made his lasting impression on me.
As badly as remembering that game burns like squeezing lemon juice in a paper cut, I’m just a fan. I didn’t play on the field, call the plays or stand on the sideline. I still feel the sting as a dorky fan in Nashville, but I can’t imagine having the weight of that outcome on your shoulder as an active participant. Double that by infinity when you think about having to answer for it.
As is accustomed in the NFL, teams are required to participate in media availability, even Super Bowl losers. Maybe not every player interviews and some can sneak out the back if they are effective, but rarely does anyone relish the opportunity. I’m a journalist, and I can happily admit that I get why I’m never going to be a professional athlete’s favorite stop after a game. It’s not personal, we get it, but especially after a loss, why would you want to publicly answer for it? Most all players are professional, but rarely are interviews given with excitement. I’m sure there are nerves, too.
After Super Bowl 51, Allen was one of the main folks available for interviews on the Falcons side, and he took account for the catastrophic collapse that had just taken part on the field. A few Falcons players did interviews after the game like Matt Ryan and Alex Mack, so it wasn’t as if Allen was alone. But a leader for the team in that glorious 2016 run, he stood out front, among all the questions of “how” and spoke as honestly as he could.
I’ll never forget listening to the piercing honestly in which Allen described what happened. SB Nation’s Thomas George recounts Allen’s postgame conference in the same way I did, with immense respect. For me, I needed to have someone I cheered for help me process whatever the hell just happened to my favorite football team.
Safety Ricardo Allen described it best: “It makes you numb. I’m kind of numb. I really don’t know what to feel. I’m broken inside. It’s terrible. It’s one of the worst feelings ever. I’m not a guy that forgets easy. I’ll probably never forget this.”
I respect Allen. I was standing right in front of his podium surrounded by at least 50 other reporters when he said this. His face was ashen, his voice was cracking. But he sat right there, cameras rolling, bright lights flashing, this 34-28 Super Bowl overtime loss still agonizing and fresh. Allen exhibited rare character after a nasty punch to the gut.
Allen’s other standout quote, about being willing to try to put at least some it behind him in the moment, really got me out of that initial slump. “I will start training, probably, in two days,” Allen said that night (recounted in a Sports Illustrated piece). “Because apparently it ain’t good enough.”
It was just hearing Allen saying he was headed right back to work after the unthinkable to get right back to the big game and fix it...that’s what did it for me. I knew, no matter what, he wasn’t going to give up. At least from the armchair, I wasn’t going to, either.
We all process Super Bowl 51 in different ways, and we’ll never forget it. But Allen didn’t quit on us in the franchise’s bleakest moment. In fact, he’s a big reason why this team was worth cheering for after the collapse. He embodied exactly why I bought into the Quinn era of the Falcons so much. Even though they never got to the top of the mountain, I always believed they’d work their ass off to get there, and that, maybe, just maybe, the power of belief could skyrocket them past the greatest collapse in football history. I was wrong; the Falcons never ended up making it under Quinn. He’s now in Dallas, and Allen has been released after seven years with the Falcons.
Sometime I wonder if I was being a bit Pollyannaish about what Quinn could reasonably do to pull the team out of that fog, but I’d never trade that feeling of hope for anything. To be a fan of something means you offer blind faith in its potential while accepting the reality of its being. The potential of the DQ Falcons was a Super Bowl; the reality was not quite that.
People like Allen, though, made believing in Quinn’s brotherhood possible, though. He made that era of the Falcons special. It always felt like, at any given moment, he could make the game-winning play, or the touchdown-saving tackle. He wasn’t the best player on the field in any game he played in, but you could’ve fooled me every damn week. He played out of his potential as a fifth-round pick with a switched position under his belt, and he never took a play off. Allen wasn’t perfect, but he gave his all for this franchise and was a key factor in making it special there for a while.
I never met Allen, but I saw him one time in the Falcons locker room. He made sure a good friend of mine, Michael Aprile, got a question in after waiting for a while among the gaggle of reporters in the Falcons locker room after a loss to Minnesota in 2017. It was Mike and I’s first time covering a Falcons game for The Falcoholic, an intimidating one. I’ll never forget being so impressed Allen remembered Mike and honored his question by ensuring that, among all the more regular media folks, the guy from The Falcoholic got his time, too.
I haven’t even mentioned him coming back from an Achilles’ injury in 2018, one of the hardest injuries for any athlete to respond from; if that doesn’t highlight Allen’s tenacious, never-quit attitude, I don’t know what was.
If you ask me, Allen is a Ring of Honor player for Atlanta. He represents the spirit of what the 2016 NFC Champions and almost-Super Bowl champs stood for, what Quinn built that showed so brightly for a year or two there, and is one of the best stories ever associated with this team. Even dynasties fade, and one day, Falcons fans won’t talk about Allen quite as much as they have as his career transitions elsewhere, whether that’s on the field or in the coaching booth where he’s shared he wants to be one day. I wouldn’t put it past him to succeed there like he did on the field. We shouldn’t ever forget what he meant and will continue to mean to this franchise in the years to come, though.
Allen is everything about why I was so proud to be a Falcons fan during the Quinn years. Those days are sadly over, but I certainly won’t forget them. When friends make lighthearted 28-3 jokes or Tom Brady highlights fill the sporty restaurant televisions, sure. I’ll get bummed. But part of me wonders if it’d hurt as badly if, that night, I didn’t know Allen was hitting the gym a few days later to fight back. At least he tried.
If I’m going to give my heart to a sports team, I want people like Allen to guard it. Even when they lose, you know they won’t quit. I’m not sure you can say a better compliment for a player of a franchise: you could trust Allen to the final whistle. It will hurt like hell to not have him out there on Sundays; he’s one of my favorite Falcons to do it.
He was and will always represent the good that comes with being a fan of this team.